Jackie Brown (1997)

D: Quentin Tarantino
S: Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster

A fortysomething flight attendant (Pam Grier) finds herself in the middle of several conspiracies as her sideline as a money courier for arms dealer Samuel L. Jackson brings her into contact with federal agents dedicated to bringing him down and with an aging Bail Bondsman (Robert Forster) who fears for her personal safety. She responds by coming up with conspiratorial countermeasures of her own and plots with Forster to divest Jackson of half a million dollars of his ill-won loot whilst convincing the feds that she is not a target worth pursuing.

This strong, adult thriller from Quentin Tarantino should come of less of a surprise to admirers of Reservoir Dogs than to Pulp Fiction devotees. Far from the tongue-in-cheek postmodernism which spawned legions of trendy wannabes in his last film, this adaptation of Elmore Leonard's novel "Rum Punch" returns Tarantino to a more concrete world where violence has consequences and the actions of characters define their destinies within an intricately plotted web of conflicting goals and obstacles.

The world of Jackie Brown is more of one of moral drama than action thriller, and in contrast to the definitively (almost parodic, certainly self-referential) masculine world of Reservoir Dogs, this film centres on a performance of great character from a female actor. Grier (who was the subject of one of the many profane exchanges in the former film) provides a strong centre for the film, and while giving due rein to the gangsterish machinations of the plot, the character also allows Tarantino to explore questions about self-definition in middle age and about the place and function of a woman in this kind of world.

It is a stretch to call the film 'feminist', but it certainly raises questions regarding gender. Though the plot is convoluted, and involves a plethora of fully engaging sub characters, it constantly turns on the question of how Jackie Brown will find her way out of this world not of her own making and into one in which she can be her own person. Each of the other characters eventually become elements of a plot which she has unfolded in spite of the ones which seem to be laid down for her by them. On one hand, the police are using her to get to Jackson. On the other, Jackson is using her to obtain money from Mexico with which to continue his arms dealing business. Meanwhile Forster seems to have a growing attraction to her and seems destined for some Knight in Shining Armour action which the film skilfully avoids. All the time Jackie must navigate treacherous waters on her own initiative, using guts and brains in equal doses, until, at the end, it is she who stands triumphant by an act of her own free will.

In contrast to Grier's strong presence is the airhead played by Bridget Fonda, whose follies indicate entirely other paths down which femininity may tread today. On the other side, a strong masculine presence is exerted by Robert Forster's bondsman, whose own life has left him facing questions of right and wrong in relation to the system and the ethics of his own profession. This is contrasted with Jackson's amoral gangster, who provides some chilling moments of violent, self serving masculinity. Robert De Niro then also adds to the quagmire with his shiftless loser, as does Michael Keaton's ambitious young cop, contributing to a fine spectrum of late twentieth century men on the road to self destruction.

But this is a character drama, not just a series of vignetttes, and it is testament to the skill with which these characters have been crafted in print, in performance and through direction that their part in the unfolding crime plot becomes important to an audience because we care about them and because the world in which they live is so convincing. There are moments of genuine tension at the climax when Forster and Grier are threatened with violent death, which is more than could be said of any of the Looney Tune caricatures in the retro-pop fantasy of Pulp Fiction (as much fun as it was to wade among them while the film was on), and there are reversals and twists in characterisation which arise not from deus ex machina contrivances, but from questions of perspective, which have always been Tarantino's playground.

This is a serious film, and this seems to have surprised a great many critics and viewers alike. That Tarantino has directed it with skill and some flair seems to be as much a source of the upset as anything else. Pulp Fiction seemed to suggest a Citizen Kanesque bag of tricks which would exhaust a juvenile mind very quickly. This interpretation was reinforced by scripts the likes of From Dusk Till Dawn and Natural Born Killers. But Tarantino has responded with a fully realised film which firmly demonstrates a basic cineaste's grasp of story and character (evident in Reservoir Dogs, if disguised by the playful flashback structure and one-liners).

Yet it is as different a film from either of his first two efforts as they were from each other, and there are some for whom Jackie Brown will come as a horrible shock. Some may find themselves blindly groping at the plot in an effort to find the subversive wink to the audience that will make it possible to ignore that films can be about something. But there are also people who will find the film a surprising gem, and may now turn their attentions back to the previous films, which they may have ignored, and discover what was good about them also. If nothing else, Jackie Brown proves that Quentin Tarantino is not merely a transient phenomenon, he is an interesting American director who may yet deserve a place in the annals of film history rather than have to shock his way in.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.